Number one for English language teachers

Grammar and vocabulary: teaching students collocations

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

A discussion and explanation of collocations and practical suggestions for teaching them.

 


How can I help my students with collocations? Advanced students need to be aware of the importance of collocation.

I would argue that students at every level need to be aware of the importance of collocation, as I believe collocation can be used not only to help learners understand and manage lexis but also to communicate ideas more effectively.

For example, one of my learners recently asked the difference in meaning between glance and glimpse. After some discussion of contexts in which these words might be used, we produced the following:

 

at a guy in a pub

 

  

the thief as he ran away

glance

at your partner’s answers

 

 

glimpse

the car as it drove past

 

at the back cover of a book in a bookshop

 

 

(catch a glimpse of)

a woman’s shoulder as she’s getting changed on the beach

 

at the board while you’re taking notes

   

 


It was immediately clear to me how helpful it was to use collocation to highlight the differences between the two verbs. I have also found collocation useful in explaining the difference between opposites:

light green / dark green but light suitcase / heavy suitcase.

What is collocation?

Collocations are combinations of words which are used together with greater than usual frequency:

latest gossip adjective + noun
package holiday noun + noun
have a great time verb + adjective + noun
discuss calmly verb + adverb
completely satisfied adverb + adjective
hand in an assignment verb + preposition + noun

There is a difference between the types of lexical collocation mentioned above and:

  1. Fixed expressions with adjective / verb + dependant preposition :
rely on
interested
late for

 

  1. Idioms/ossified collocations where substituting any of the words is impossible:
to get out of bed on the wrong side
idiom
to shrug your shoulderscollocation

 

  1. Words that co-occur frequently but are not collocations:
this means that …
as a result …
although he …

 


Types of Collocation

  1. De-lexicalised Verbs
    De-lexicalised verbs (get, have, make, do, put, take) are important when teaching collocation because although they may have a basic meaning (make = create/manufacture, have = own/possess), they are more commonly used in combinations with nouns or other words as a chunk of meaning:
make a mistake
do your homework
take an exam

 

In my experience, a lot of mistakes in collocations are made with de-lexicalised verbs, probably due to L1 interference (see below).

  1. Nouns
    I feel that it is very useful to teach learners those collocations with a noun as a key word. This is because the majority of general nouns usually require further qualification:

good

 

package

 

well-paid

 

luxury

 

menial

job

expensive

holiday

boring

 

cheap

 

full-time

 

good

 

 

Nouns are also important because they are usually the words that carry the most meaning within a sentence.


Strong/Weak and Frequent/Infrequent Collocations

There is also a difference between strong/weak and frequent/infrequent collocations. A collocation that is frequent (e.g. a warm day) is not necessarily strong, as either word in the partnership suggests a number of other collocates:

 

sweater

 

bad

 

 

blanket

 

wedding

 

(a) warm

smile

(a)

sunny

day

 

hug

 

rainy

 

 

breeze

 

glorious

 

 

In the same way, a particularly strong collocation may be used very infrequently (e.g. bat your eyelashes). The most useful combination for teaching purposes, then, seems to be a combination of strong (but not completely fixed) and frequent. A strong/infrequent collocation may be worth mentioning to draw the learners’ attention to its existence, but little, if any, class time would need to be spent on collocations at the weak/infrequent end of the spectrum.

Nation also makes the point that, in a classroom situation, frequent collocations only deserve attention if: “their frequency is equal to or higher than other high-frequency words.” This puts a greater pressure on the teacher when making the decision about whether to spend time on a particular collocation. I feel that if there are enough potential frequent collocations of one of the nodes, it is worth spending some class time on:

take a

put (yourself) at

run the

 

risk

 

With the second two verbs in this example, the unpredictability of the combination is also a factor. Most learners at intermediate level or above would be familiar with all three of the verbs, but few would realise that it is possible to collocate ‘run’ and ‘risk’. Moreover, this would be a difficult collocation for learners to work out just by knowing the meaning of the individual parts, so would therefore merit some class time.


What problems do learners have with collocation, and how can we help?

1. Quantity/Arbitrariness
A major stumbling block to most learners is the fact that there are so many possible collocations and that the choice of which word to collocate with, say, a noun is completely arbitrary. This leads to the question: “Well, why is it have a coffee not drink a coffee?” and the inevitable reply (hated by teachers and students alike): “It just is.”

If students are encouraged to record collocations as they occur, they have a permanent record of which combinations are possible. Class time can be given for learners to revise and practise the collocations they have learnt (see below for suggestions) or to add new ones.

There are various ways for learners to record new collocations in their vocabulary notebooks. I have found that the most effective is to use a box format such as:

(verb)

(adjective)

 

(verb)

(adjective)

noun

(verb)

(adjective)

 

 

For lower level learners it might be helpful to organise their collocation boxes by topic (in the same order as their coursebooks) – jobs, family, food etc. Intermediate learners may prefer to organise by keyword – work, holiday etc – and advanced students by grammatical structure – verb + noun, noun + adjective etc. Organisation is really a matter for individual learners, though, as it should be done according to personal preference to minimise the learning burden. Learners can leave some entries in the boxes blank to be completed at a later date with other collocates that they have noticed independently.

2. L1 Transfer
Many learners expect that because they collocate something a particular way in L1, it will translate directly (and correctly) into English. A quick survey of my current learners produced the following verb + noun collocations:

English

L1 Equivalent

Literal Translation

take the car

Arabayla gittim (Turkish)

Jet autem (Czech)

Car went

Go by car

have a coffee

Prendere un café (Italian)

Minum kopi (Bahasa Indonesian)

Take a coffee

Drink a coffee

do your homework

Napsat úkol (Czech)

Write your homework

pay attention to

Stai attento (Italian)

Memberikan perhatian (Bahasa Indonesian)

Faire attention à (French)

Be attentive

Give attention to

Do attention to

go on holiday

Hu-ga jung ip-nida (Korean)

Mach Urlaub (German)

Partir en vacances (French)

Holiday doing

Do holiday

Leave on holiday

 

Bahns argues that because of this untranslatability teachers should focus on collocations which can not be translated directly, pointing out contrasts to students instead of similarities.

If learners fail to use a correct collocation, even if their utterance is grammatically and contextually correct, their English will still sound unnatural and ‘foreign’, to the extent that their addressee may not understand them at all. Compare the following (from a selection of my learners’ written work):

He survived *very *strongly (from a Japanese student)
We *own a shopping centre (from a Swiss student)
I *took a good decision (from an Italian student)
He knows what he’s *speaking about (from a German student)
I can’t see any *problem why (from a Czech student)

If we substitute the asterisked words for miraculously, have, made, talking and reason, these utterances become more natural and nativelike.

Collocation grids can be useful in helping learners to understand which words are possible collocates and which aren’t, by simply ticking the correct combination. These grids can be made from the students’ own written (or spoken) work as a correction exercise as well as more general ones in textbooks:

 

a person

a bank

money

a car

a shop

a wallet

rob

      

steal

      

 

Such grids are also very useful for showing the difference in meaning or use between two or three words that appear almost the same. The grid may then be used to contrast with L1 possibilities for collocation.

3. Meaning and Noticing
Especially when dealing with text, many learners (especially those at lower levels) tend to focus on individual words that they don’t know, rather than on the collocation. This is because the usual way of noticing and recording vocabulary is to write the word (out of context and without its collocates) in a vocabulary notebook with its L1 translation. Alternatively, more advanced learners will say, “I know that word” and move on without checking for any collocates in the text. Both of these problems arise from poor learner-training: learners need to have collocations pointed out to them before they can be expected to notice them for themselves.

When working with text, it takes very little time to point collocations out to learners – or, alternatively, with higher levels or classes experienced in noticing to ask them to find collocations for themselves. In this opening paragraph , six collocations can be identified (my underlining):

When Clifford met Annie, they found one thing in common. They both love lists. So together they have written the ultimate list, a list of rules for their marriage. This prenuptial agreementitemizes every detail of their lives together, from shopping to sex. Timothy Laurence met them in Florida in the apartment they share.

 

Newspaper articles, opening paragraphs of books and videos of TV soap operas or sports commentaries also lend themselves to this kind of noticing activity. The advantages of using such authentic material are obvious – the language is used in a natural way and in context. However, we should be careful to choose which collocations we focus on in terms of frequency , level and suitability for our particular group of learners.

Phonology (Chunking and Linking)

A direct result of this inability to recognise collocation is that many learners (especially at lower levels) sound very stilted when speaking. There are three main reasons for this:

1. they pronounce every word with equal stress
2. they fail to notice how the sentence could be chunked
3. they don’t link the chunks together

Without a knowledge of collocation, learners are unable to chunk, link and stress longer sentences correctly, making them sound unnatural.

Even with advanced classes, choral drilling is the best way to give students extra time to work on this aspect of collocation. A demonstration on the board of where the linking and stress occurs (plus any schwas) can help students who learn more visually.


Activities to help students with collocation  

Once the collocations have been pointed out, several activities can be produced to help the students become familiar with them.

Recycling activities:

  • Matching activities in which the collocations are divided and written on separate cards:
    These can be used as the initial part of a test-teach-test approach to see what the learners already know, or to revise collocations from a previous lesson. This form of recycling is a good way to help learners remember the collocations .
  • Board races where the teacher calls out one half of the collocation and the students work in teams to write the other half on the board. This activity can be extended by asking students to suggest other possible collocates.
  • Cloze activities such as a gapped transcription of a listening text, or sentences in which half the collocation has been deleted.

Communicative activities:

I have used surveys, reports and stories with different levels of learners to practise previously-learnt collocations in context more communicatively.

With collocations organised by topic, learners can conduct a survey among their classmates and follow it up with a written or oral report. In the topic of household chores, for examples, learners survey the following:

In your house, who:

does the dishes?
makes the beds?
takes the rubbish out? (etc)

With collocations organised by key-word , learners can be given a set of cards with the collocations written on them which they have to put into some kind of chronological order. They can then use the cards to write a story :

got worse

got angry

got caught

got drunk

got shot

got in trouble

got divorced

got sick

got fat

got pregnant

got into debt

got killed

 

The Bank of English

The online Bank of English from Collins COBUILD and The University of Birmingham has a search engine where collocations can be looked up and checked (in order of frequency of use) . The search can be refined and limited by the use of parameters such as:

make + NOUN

I have found this very useful, especially when dealing with de-lexicalised verbs, with higher level and FCE classes, by taking the class into the computer room, having them look through their written work for mis-collocations, searching the database and then using the results to record the correct collocation (with other additions if appropriate) into their vocabulary notebooks. This is both an autonomous and personalised way of correcting written work.

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Readers' comments (9)

  • Hi Jamil,

    Thanks for the lovely feedback. Glad to hear that you like it.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • it is really helpful. Thanks for a nice share.

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  • Hi there,

    Thanks for your feedback. It is a good idea for the teacher to identify what they think are good examples of chunking and linking in specific texts so they are appropriate for their classes's level. To provide one example here would mean it is out of context and therefore not so memorable for students.

    However, if you are unsure about this, something you can do is to ask students to look for the main noun phrase or verb phrase in a sentence, then ask them to identify the stressed words or syllables in that phrase. To link phrases together, look for examples of catenation (when they consonant sound at the end of one word joins with the vowel sound at the beginning of the next word).

    Model the natural pronunciation of the collocations on their own then build up to using them together within the sentence, focusing on the correct stress and linking sounds.

    Hope that helps.
    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglishteam

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  • Helpful article, but I wonder what are the examples of chunking and linking? Thinking about pronunciation problems related to collocations I imagine stress-related issues. But I'm struggling to find an example for linking. I'd be grateful if you might help.
    Thanks,
    Sofia

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  • Hi Lucia,

    Thanks for the feedback. That's quite amusing. It's always important to make students aware of the pitfalls of direct translation, false friends, and subtle differences in meaning between other languages and English. That is why collocations are so important and useful in raising awareness of natural language.

    For some more help on this, why not check out our Your English section on collocations:

    http://www.onestopenglish.com/community/your-english/collocations/

    Hope you find that useful.
    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • Just something that came to my mind when reading the interesting and useful table above; a mistake that is recurrent with Italian students: "stai attento" means be attentive AND be careful, with the result that if you are about to walk into a hole your Italian friend will say "pay attention!"

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  • We're glad you found the article useful. Let us know how your next collocations lesson goes.

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  • Very useful - many thanks.

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  • Really helpful advice!

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